Communicating climate information: Why we should just talk to each other
By Tali Hoffman
When it comes to climate science, the information that is produced and the information that is needed often do not align with one another. This mismatch leaves the producers of climate information feeling frustrated because their hard work is being ignored, while the users of climate information feel disillusioned because the science they’re provided with isn’t meeting their needs. If we are to tackle the challenges of climate change more effectively and sustainably then these two groups need to find a way to talk to rather than past each other. So how do we do this?
Step 1: Open up the lines of communication
Much of this information misalignment can be corrected by scientists and stakeholders simply having frequent, open and jargon-free conversations with each other. Dialogue between these groups gives stakeholders a platform to explain their needs to scientists, which helps scientists to figure out how to focus their work on issues that are directly relevant. At the same time, scientists can provide stakeholders with realistic expectations of which needs climate science can (and can’t) meet. These conversations can truly trigger lasting transformation and support optimal adaptation decision-making and therefore great effort should be invested in creating opportunities for active and ongoing dialogue.
Step 2: Move beyond general forecasts and focus on specific issues
Rather than focusing on general forecasts for broad geographical areas, climate science needs to become more specific and explicit to locations, ecosystems, sectors and livelihoods. It is rare that detailed and rigorous analyses are conducted at this higher resolution, and yet climate information focused at these scales will enable people to make easier and more direct links between projected climate impacts and their specific vulnerabilities. In particular, climate science needs to be focused on climate-related thresholds. Most stakeholders have an understanding of the critical thresholds they face. For example, disaster risk managers are likely to know that their floodwater drains will overflow if a specific quantity of rain falls in a short period of time. Similarly, a cattle farmer is likely to know that if the ambient temperature is extremely high for a number of consecutive days, the cows will suffer from heat stress. Climate science that concentrates on if, when and how frequently such thresholds might be reached could better help stakeholders to decide on appropriate courses of adaptation action.
Step 3: Deliver climate information appropriately and effectively
Once the newly produced climate information is ready to be fed back to the stakeholders, attention should be focused on three important topics: format, content and delivery.
To maximise its applicability to different end-users, the same information will need to be reproduced in multiple and diverse formats, with varying levels of detail and focus. However, in all cases, the format of climate messages should be driven by stakeholder demand and tailored to their needs. Questions to be discussed with stakeholders as early as possible should include: are briefing notes the best way of communicating climate information to them? Would videos, radio programmes, theatre or games be more readily understood? In what language(s) should the information be delivered? Would the group benefit from having access to the underlying data?
Regardless of their format, all information should strike a balance between being scientifically valid and easily understood. This is not always an easy feat, but it is imperative that information is neither impossibly complex, nor simplified to the point of being inaccurate. Information should also include details of which forecasts are certain and which are not. People often shy away from discussing uncertainty; yet it’s worth remembering that stakeholders are often familiar with climatic uncertainty (e.g., farmers deal with uncertainty every day), and that any kind of decision‑making needs to account for risk and variability.
Producing specific and relevant climate information is just one aspect of the communication challenge; the other is making sure that the information reaches people effectively and that it is neither misinterpreted nor misused. Packaging the information in ways that will help people to fully interrogate and internalise it is just as important as the information itself. Conversations between stakeholders and scientists should facilitate this, and it’s worthwhile to have an accompanying dialogue process to support the delivery and use of any communication product. Ensure that any trainers or presenters – be they from research groups or boundary organisations – have sufficient understanding of the subject matter to effectively communicate the science and any associated uncertainty.
Step 4: Consider appropriate responses to the science
In addition to giving people the most relevant information in the most appropriate forms, it’s also important to be proactively involved in decision-making processes. By considering the climate science and any uncertainties in the context of stakeholder vulnerabilities, scientists can help stakeholders make sense of the information and figure out the most robust responses to it. These conversations can also spur new thinking about what kind of climate information is still needed, and guide scientists in their thinking about what analyses to consider next.
This four-step approach to climate science communication was advocated by all interviewees. That is: to improve climate science communication processes we need to improve communication generally. We need to speak to each other often, honestly, and empathetically, and invest time in developing trust and understanding. In so doing, climate scientists will produce information that is increasingly relevant, useful and in demand, while stakeholders will have access to the specific information they need to make robust adaptation decisions.